Kickboxing Dressage Horses

Some of you may have seen this article before, which I wrote in 2008.  I am posting it now by request.

Completely gratuitous picture of Elliot  :-)

Completely gratuitous picture of Elliot ūüôā

Now into my 4th week of kickboxing, I see clearly that learning to kickbox is simply dressage for people.¬† It’s all about building strength and flexibility, but this time it is my job, not my horse’s, to do the physical work.¬† The trainer hasn’t yet uttered the term “gymnasticising”¬† but I have a suspicion she is thinking it.

I should have seen this epiphany coming.¬† On Day One, I was smugly confident that I, a former intercollegiate athlete afterall, would pick up this sissy-pants kickboxing in a snap.¬† Alas, pride goeth before a fall.¬† Five minutes into the class I was reduced to giggling at my coltish attempts to keep in step.¬† Occasionally off the beat, often with legs entangled, I began the journey as a goofy young horse–no balance, no muscle tone, but happy to go.

During this time, I relied heavily on my trainer.¬† The manner in which I looked to her is just as young horses look to us:¬† “Um, a little help?”¬† What elevated my favorite trainers was their gift for simply preparing me to succeed.¬† Perhaps as we were doing a side kick she’d say, “Forward kick in 3, 2, 1”, so that I could be thinking about how to change to the forward kick before I was asked to do it.¬† Transitions presented in this manner were simple and fun to perform.¬† If trainers did not give this “verbal half halt”, the transition would be disorganized and rushed.¬† Worse yet, repeated muffed attempts would leave me vaguely frustrated, and perceiving myself as incompetent.¬† I realize, with more than a little sadness, that I have felt horses experience this frustration with me.¬† The kickboxing horsie in me, and the grass-munching ones in my pasture, appreciate having a little “heads up”.

My inner horsie learns best with occasional praise.¬† As my legs flopped about, while my neighbors’ kicks snapped vividly, I was acutely aware that I was not competent.¬† From my viewpoint as I struggled, the best trainers responded by encouraging improvement rather then by highlighting shortcomings. Good trainers trust that people and horses would prefer to be competent, and therefore generously acknowledge improvement.¬† This tactic encouraged my inner horsie to strive more cheerfully and probably more effectively.

With some effort, I’m about a 2nd Level Kickboxing Dressage Horse these days.¬† Mostly balanced, and I have to admit, a little overconfident at times.¬† “Ah, yes, next comes the boxer’s hop and then a side kick,” says my presuming inner horsie.¬† When a front kick comes in where the side kick should have been, uppity inner horsie morphs to attentive inner horsie in a hoofbeat.¬† There’s nothing like a little variety to keep that inner horsie tuned in.

Timely half halts, honest praise and creative work.  Today I was a kickboxing dressage horse, and for me, that has made all the difference.

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Sugar High

This picture has nothing to do with sugar, other than the fact that this was a really fun day, and I'd like a thousand more of them.

I’m still walking around in circles and figure 8s with the injured reserve horses (and will be for the next month at least) and it gives me some time to think. ¬†Like almost everybody, I’ve had a few times in my life when I’ve been sick and therefore kept out of the barn for a while. So today I was thinking about our health and how prevention is a pretty smart plan, not only just generally, but as horsepeople, we know we can’t take care of our horses the way we would like (or get to ride!) if we are sick.

Some sickness is out of our control, but many more factors affecting health are in our hands than we used to believe possible.

A few weeks ago I wrote about giving up Coke (the drink not the powder, I’m so not giving up the powder! ¬†JOKE, seriously, joke. If you ever met me, Miss Drug Ignorant, you’d be laughing.) ¬†Anyhoo, I backslid a little bit on the giving up Coke thing. ¬†Not badly, just one 12 oz. can to get the workday started, but even that was buggin’ me for how high it ranked on the stupid human scale.

Last Friday I got the kick in the butt that the Dr. ordered. ¬†I was cleaning stalls listening to (nerd alert) NPR’s Science Friday, when Robert Lustig, a UCSF scientist came on the show. ¬†He was advocating that sugar be taken much more seriously as a health threat, maybe even to the point of regulation or a tax on sugar. ¬†He presented information from studies that indicated that sugar can do all the things you already know it can do: make you fat, help you develop Type II diabetes and give you a sugar crash an hour or two after you eat a bunch of it. ¬†Then the doctor went on to explain how eating too much sugar affects your brain. ¬†The stall-cleaners’ version is that it clogs up your wiring and can bring on early dementia. ¬†Full audio version on the upper left corner of this page.

The idea of being a party to clogging up my own brain wiring seriously scared me. ¬†I don’t know about you, but I really would like to have my brain continue to work really well for a long time.

So then I wondered about how many grams of sugar is the RDA. ¬†Turns out it is 40 grams max, which is about 10 teaspoons, which sounds like a lot, but I looked at my yogurt today and it had 22 grams. ¬†Half a day’s RDA! ¬†Seriously, yogurt. ¬†If you want to freak yourself out about how much sugar is in food ¬†in beverages, visit Sugarstacks.com

So since hearing that Science Friday segment, I have been Coke-free again. ¬†I have replaced it with hot green tea when working at the ‘U (partly because there is a superfast, hot water-for-tea heater there; ¬†and I’m drinking unsweet iced tea otherwise. ¬†I happen to like tea, so I can’t even earn hero points for the sacrifice. ¬†Rats. ¬†Sort of.

But what I can report is that water tastes better to me now. ¬†I always liked water, but now that my taste buds aren’t daily bathing in the rock n’ roll amplification of high-fructose soda, they can better appreciate the subtle symphony that water offers. ¬†Pretty sweet. ¬†(oh ¬†very punny, I know.)

So that was all horse-related because you have to take care of you in order to take care of your horse. ¬†Sort of new take on “Love me, love my horse,” except now it is self-love in the most altruistic sense.

Other thought for the day, I love my new nathe snaffle bit, because my horses love my new nathe snaffle bit.  It is extremely flexible (you can easily bend it in half and put the rings together.  It is gum/plastic over a wire (wire so that it can not be bitten through, which would be unusual.)

Flexible.  Thin.  Two hooves up.

I work really hard on having correct hands, using my seat first, and having elastic connection. ¬†But I still have one horse that hangs his tongue like a hound dog and another who grinds like a grist mill. ¬†I’m happy to report that the hound dog is noticeable less houndy (the thinner bit seems to fit his mouth better) and the grist mill now mouths the bit in a relaxed manner. ¬†The more I ride the less I bit.

Inside leg

Charlie and I on a recent hunt. Yes, we're both very tall. He's 17 hands, I'm 6'3". My friend and her horse are normal-sized.

I haven’t had an unsound horse for a long time – until recently. ¬†Now I have two on the injured reserve stall rest list. ¬†Charlie and Sammy. ¬†The prognosis is good for both of them. ¬†We’ve now done the first 10 days of strict stall rest, the week of stall rest plus 10 minutes of hand-walking per day and now we are on to stall rest with 15 minutes of walking, this time mounted. ¬†I’ll admit, I had some trepidation about getting on Charlie, a thoroughbred who, a few years ago, had a habit of bucking and now had a few weeks of stall rest under his girth.

But he was an angel.  Never set a foot wrong.  Of course, the horse that I thought would be easy peasy, Sammy, started with a humped-up back and had a few moments of corkscrew ears and some mumbling about how he could buck and he was a wild, wild horse.  Yeah.  Wild Sammy.  You can stop that now.

He didn’t buck, by the way. ¬† ¬†Contrary to his wonted bad boy image, he’s a good man. ¬†Sammy at an eventer derby

Anyway, now I am walking the two goofballs around the indoor for 15 minutes per horse every day. ¬†It just so happens that these days I am also reading Charles De Kunffy’s book Training Strategies for Dressage Riders (on my rockin’ Kindle Fire, that thing is just stupid cool). ¬†So I’ve got 30 minutes of walk to do and I start fooling around with CDK’s comments on use of the rider’s legs. ¬†He says the inside leg is the driving leg and the outside leg is the guarding leg when asking for a bend.

So I walk and walk around the arena on a loose rein thinking about this. ¬†Of course, the first time I put my leg on to play with it, each fresh horsie decides this is an invitation to trot. ¬†Hmmm. ¬†No, not the right button. ¬†So then I make sure not to drop my leg back even an inch, but use it more straight toward the girth, leading with my ankle bone. ¬†That got me leg yield. ¬†Hmmmm, right idea, but not quite. ¬†So I walked around a little more and thought about it. ¬†Maybe if I… ¬†What about if…

Sammy, in case you don't follow video links.

So I got to thinking about using my whole inside leg, from the hip down.  This would have to be without pinching with the knee. With my long-legged conformation it is not possible to use my lower calf/ankle, while keeping my knee against the saddle, so I keep my calf on and allow the knee to come off the saddle if necessary, but usually it is just a softening of its contact with the saddle.

After performing this thought experiment, I gave it a try.  What I noticed was that when I used my whole leg, my seat bones were more precisely placed and probably clearer to the horse.  I got really cool results.  The first night, after a few wobbles and comedies of errors, I could do a large figure 8 in my arena using only seat aids.  It was terrific!  The second night, not really believing this was possible Рmaybe the horses were so smart they were memorizing the pattern РI threw in a random circle.  Sure enough it worked.  Then I started playing with different-sized circles.  Some learning curve there, and after what has now been an hour of walking around, I am getting a handle on that.

But back to CDK’s idea of the inside leg being the driving aid. ¬†Turns out that when I use that leg in a more energetic manner (still quiet and rhythmic, but a bit more emphatically) I get a tighter turn that remains in balance. ¬†In retrospect, this makes perfect sense. ¬†Look at the reach from the inside hind on this horse learning canter pirouette.

Yeah, what she said

 

The stalling point

 

So the arena has been stalled at an unusable point for a month due to the construction crews moving to a cow/calf operation project that had to get done before calving. Um, arg. ¬† ¬†This has effectively eliminated any chance of riding to days when the footing happens to be perfect in the pasture or on the gravel roads, which doesn’t happen with frequency in February in Iowa. ¬†Of course, before the indoor arena project I had an outdoor arena which I could use with some regularity in winter, but the location of the indoor is where the outdoor was, so I am now effectively hamstrung for riding, until construction begins again in mid-March.

So I’ve been reading. ¬†The latest book is “Dressage Masters, Techniques and Philosophies of Four Legendary Trainers”. ¬†It is an interview book, simply written and it is really wonderful. ¬†I bought it because it has my dressage hero, Klaus Balkenhol, as one of the four, but I’ve found also that the other trainers ‚Äď Ernst Hoyos, Dr. Uwe¬†Schulten-Baumer and George Theodorescu are equally admirable. ¬†It makes me feel good every time I realize that all good trainers sound fundamentally the same. ¬†They all have first a love of the horse. ¬†That seems obvious, until you meet a trainer who doesn’t love horses. ¬†¬†I bought this book for my Kindle for like $15 or something.

 

Ellen Schulten-Baumer

The quote from it that I want to share with you was spoken by Ellen Schulten-Baumer, whose father, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer, trained her. ¬†She currently has 5 Grand Prix dressage horses in her barn that she and her dad trained from 3 year olds. ¬†I’m just going to share this quote and get out, because I can add nothing to it. ¬†Rock on, people.

 

“I learned something very important from my father. ¬†When a horse doesn’t perform a lesson as expected, I first have to ask myself whether the horse is capable. ¬†If the answer is yes, then I must think about how I apply my aids. ¬†I must use them better so the horse understands exactly what I want. ¬†This may involve riding more preparatory exercises. ¬†If I can’t get it right fairly quickly, then I go to something else. ¬†It is unfair and unproductive to drill a horse; this causes too much physical and mental stress. ¬†I tell my students this also. ¬†If they just can’t get it right, they can think about their aids overnight and try again tomorrow. ¬†Then the horse and rider get a fresh star together.”

Perfect mirrors

The Newf, playing the role of recently awakened grizzly bear

Our Newf Peppa has to take a few pills per day. ¬†I’ve been spooning out about a tablespoon of peanut butter, hiding the pills in it, rolling it up and giving the resulting peanut butter ball of goodness to the Newf, who eats them down like a champ. ¬†This plan was all good until I started to get slightly annoyed with the reality of having peanut butter combined with dog goo on my fingers every day. ¬†I love peanut butter, and without the dog goo, I would just like it off my fingers like anybody would. ¬†But the dog goo makes it a no deal. ¬†So I rinse it off with water, but, I’ve found I need to use very hot water, because peanut butter plus cold water simply equals stickier peanut butter. ¬†Paper towels work too, but the process is still unsatisfying.

Peppa the Newf in delighted phase

Then one day, I took a spoon straight from the dishwasher, freshly cycled. ¬†It was a little bit damp as I used it to scoop my peanut butter. ¬†And voi la! ¬†The peanut butter didn’t stick! ¬†It was easy to make it into a little ball that the Newf ate right up and I was left with clean hands. ¬†Amazing! ¬†The Newf and I were delighted. ¬†Little discoveries like this can make all the difference.

That is how it was last week.  A student was going to be a bit late for her lesson, so I decided to tack up her horse and warm him up for her.  I had about 35 minutes, so I was able to have a nice long walk warmup, and then did some brief trotting and cantering.  Charlie did very well, moving forward in a relaxed and polite manner.  I was just finishing up when my student arrived.

Charlie, Camie and The Newf observe the work on the indoor arena. Must have bought the cheap seats to be by the muck pile...

This was to be a lesson on riding out of the arena, so I mounted up on Elliot and she got on Charlie and out we went. ¬†Now Elliot is a beautiful animal who, a little unfortunately, has about the most earthbound walk possible. He’s not about to set any land speed records. ¬†I gave my student the mission of keeping Charlie’s ears even with Elliot’s, which I guessed would be an easy goal, with Charlie’s long tb legs and his good warmup.

But there was trouble in paradise.  She was having a devil of a time getting Charlie to swing along, as I know he is capable of doing, and as he had done just a few minutes before.  So I reminded her of all the things riding instructors say.  Make sure you are following the stretch of his neck in walk, with your hands in an elastic connection.  Keep your legs on in a rhythmic fashion to support the walk.  And she was doing these things, I could see.

Still he walked slowly along, a wobbly beast that belied the completely enjoyable horse I had just been riding.  Against my better judgement I told her to give him a good nudge, aka a kick.  We got one quick step from that, and then a return to the slogging blobfest he was doing before.  As I comparatively glided along on Elliot and watched her work so hard for the same walk on her horse, I wondered very quietly and very seriously why it was so hard to get Charlie to walk with intention.

Charlie and I hunting

I decided to intently observe what she was doing. ¬†After a few minutes it was clear to me that it wasn’t what she was doing, it was what she wasn’t doing. ¬†Though her hands followed, and her legs rhythmically supported, her hips and back were stiffly resisting the forward motion. ¬†There was go in her calves and hands, and there was stop everywhere else. ¬†I had a postulate that Charlie’s resistance wasn’t his own. ¬†He was simply reflecting what his rider was telling him to do.

I explained this to my student and then showed her what I was doing in my hips and back and how she could do the same thing to harmonize her aids and give Charlie clear direction. ¬†Less than a minute later, because she’s a very talented learner, Charlie was swinging along in a confident, sweeping walk. ¬†Horses are perfect mirrors of the energy of their riders. ¬†Riders only need to make their energy unified and clear.

It was pretty cool.  Hope it helps you.

 

 

Learning sitting trot

Sitting trot can be a pain in the butt, and a pain in the “front butt” too. ¬†The bumping that accompanies learning to elastically sit a horse’s trot can be a real trial, and one you don’t probably choose to discuss with your non-horse friends on girls’ night!

The first inclination when things get painful in the nethers is to blame the saddle, and there are probably some small minority of saddles that are so ill-fitting as to be the source of the problem. However, if you’ve tried several, many or myriad saddles and you can’t find one that is comfortable for sitting trot for you, the one constant is not the saddles! ¬†For fun, let’s just entertain the idea that it might be technique rather than saddle. ¬†My Dad’s voice rings in my head: “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.”

What is happening to produce discomfort? ¬†When a rider’s back is not relaxed and elastically following the movement of the horse, there has to be a bump between the moving thing (the horse, going up and down and forward) and the still thing (the rider, who wants to be still relative to the horse, but she thinks she can do that by holding herself still through the use of rigid muscles. “Still relative to the horse” in sitting trot means both keeping her hips and shoulders over the center of the horse at the front of the saddle as he moves forward (relatively easy for many), and elastically absorbing and releasing the energy of the upward bound and downward release of the trot (relatively difficult for many).

Picture a person learning to dribble a basketball.  At first, their hand slaps the ball down with an audible bump.  Over time, the person learns to catch the energy of the ball bouncing off the ground and then smoothly return and even re-direct that energy down.  Soon the person can dribble the ball anywhere she wants.  There is no bumping against the ball, only catching the energy of the ball going up, in an open, relaxed and elastic hand,  and then releasing the energy back down.  This accepting and releasing of the energy coming up and going down is what we do in good sitting on trotting horses. The horse is like the ball sending energy up in his bounds up and forward and releasing it in his return to the earth. In good sitting trot, the tripod of your pelvis is engaged with your lower back to produce the relaxed and elastic catching and releasing of that energy.

Most of us think we should be born knowing how to sit the trot, so we expect it to be immediately effortless.  It is afterall, just sitting and we do that all the time.  (More correctly, riding sitting trot is active stillness.)  And it looks so fabulously easy when some riders do it.  Because people tend to think that a connected sitting trot is their birthright, they get in there and wing it, and unless they are of the 1% to whom it actually IS their birthright, they find themselves surprised to be bumping the saddle with their pelvis somehow (some with the back of the pelvis, some with the front) and it hurts Рjust like slapping a basketball with your hand is not pleasant. Except with a basketball, we would be thought very silly if we blamed the ball for hurting our hands while we are slapping it!

To compound the problem, without patient development of the sitting trot skill, there is a natural tendency to tighten the thigh and back to defend oneself against the bumping that develops.  This keeps the pelvis tensely tilted up off the saddle, which stops the bumping, but it disqualifies the possibility of real connection and influence on the horse, and, further, encourages stiffness in the horse, which then makes the gait harder to sit!  It is a vicious cycle that can be circumvented with knowledgeable help and patient attention.  Here is my blog about regaining the sitting trot after I lost it when I shifted my sacrum.

Watch George Williams (love his riding.  Yeah, I know.  I am kind of like John Madden talking about Brett Favre, but stay with me here.) in sitting trot in this video.  Try not to be distracted by the gorgeous horse or surroundings.  Look at his pelvis and lower back.  They are moving.  A LOT. Riders have to be fearless and elastic in sitting trot.  You can only be those things when you actually have help in learning to sit the trot by slowing things down and being patient with yourself while you do it.  The payoff is uber cool.  Real connection with the seat in sitting trot is a cornerstone to really good riding.

Training, simplified

Piaffe

When Jay and I were watching dressage at the WEG, we were using the headsets in which a commentator was, well, commentating. ¬†I don’t know if this happens to you, but sometimes a particular turn of phrase will have such an undeniable “truthiness” (oh how I love that word) to it that I find myself putting everything else immediately aside to think about it. ¬†The commentator was acknowledging a particularly beautiful piaffe in an afternoon of piaffing excellence. ¬†She said,

“When you train a horse you have to do two things: ¬†You have to teach him the mechanics of what you wish him to do, and then you have to teach him that he is good at it.”

Upon hearing that, I didn’t really see the rest of the test, though I was looking. ¬†It was like a lightning bolt hit me, and I sat there, stunned. ¬†That one sentence encapsulated all that I do with horses. ¬†A trainer has to know the correct mechanics of any skill she is trying to teach (what are the footfalls of canter? ¬†How does half pass start? ¬†How does a horse arrange his legs in all stages of a jump?). ¬†The trainer also has to know when the work is correct, or even close while they are learning, and communicate that to the horse. ¬†Congratulate him, even. ¬†When the horse gets his paycheck in praise for doing a thing as we wish, pretty soon he likes to do that thing. ¬†When he likes to do that thing, he performs it with increasing confidence, which, if nurtured, becomes brilliance.

So the horse piaffing with joyful brilliance in front of us that day had mastered the mechanics of the movement, and he clearly knew he was good at it. ¬†It was a joy to see. ¬†Now that’s training.